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The Rise and Fall of the ‘Freedom Convoy’

The Rise and Fall of the ‘Freedom Convoy’

A new book examines the trucker-led protests against Canadian vaccine mandates.

· 8 min read

The Freedom Convoy truckers who rolled into Ottawa in late January had a lot of support—including from normally apolitical users of apps such as TikTok and Instagram. Even outside Canada, various anti-establishment celebrities rallied to their side. Elon Musk got hundreds of thousands of likes for a January 27th tweet stating that “Canadian truckers rule.” Comedians Rob Schneider and Russell Brand cheered the protests on as well. Donald Trump Jr. posted a four-minute Facebook video praising the “heroic” truckers standing up for “medical freedom.” And former president Donald Trump received a standing ovation at the Conservative Political Action Conference when he pledged to support Canadians “in their noble quest to reclaim their freedom.”

Protest organizers realized how big the movement had become when they saw copycat convoys popping up elsewhere. In early February, a group of American truckers launched a Facebook group promoting the “Convoy to DC 2022.” They collected more than 100,000 members before Facebook deleted the group, supposedly for its links to the conspiracy movement QAnon. American truckers then regrouped and launched the People’s Convoy, a weeks-long protest that drove around Washington, DC. Convoys also set out for Paris, London, Brussels, Wellington (New Zealand), and Canberra (Australia), among other world capitals. The phrase “Canada-style protest,” a term possibly never uttered before, appeared in at least eighty news articles in February.

But the convoy participants’ most important audience was inside Canada—specifically, the politicians with the power to lift vaccine mandates. Plenty of these politicians had been talking about an end to pandemic restrictions for months, but without providing anything resembling a timeline. Policies were all over the map. Some provinces, notably Quebec, were actually adding restrictions in early 2022, even as others seemed set to lift them.

Just a few days after the convoy first arrived in Ottawa, Quebec’s provincial government dropped a bombshell: it would be abandoning its contentious (and possibly unconstitutional) plan to tax the unvaccinated. The “health contribution,” as the province called it, had been announced less than a month earlier, with officials stating that unvaccinated Quebecers were more likely to wind up in hospital and run up healthcare costs, so they should have to pay. This vax tax had been followed by another new measure, barring the unvaccinated from big-box retail stores. Convoy organizers believed that it was these policies—as well as Quebec’s COVID curfew (which let police fine anyone out after 8pm; later extended to 10pm)—that led to the strong showing of Quebec truckers and protesters on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. And when Quebec backtracked on these measures, convoy participants took it as a big win, the first of several.

On February 8th, a week and a half after trucks began arriving in Ottawa, Alberta’s then-premier, Jason Kenney, announced an immediate end to his province’s vaccine-passport program, and set a date of March 1st to lift its mask mandate. Later that same day, Saskatchewan’s premier, Scott Moe, followed Kenney’s lead, announcing a February 14th end to vaccine passports. “It’s time to heal the divisions over vaccination in our families, in our communities, and in our province,” he said. A few days later, Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, said a plan was in the works to drop Ontario’s vaccine-passport system, too.

All of these premiers were quick to downplay what some began to call the “Convoy Effect.” These moves to end COVID public-health measures were already happening anyway, they insisted. But it wasn’t a wholly convincing argument. Before the convoy got rolling, politicians had generally refused to announce timelines, let alone put concrete reopening measures in place.

At the federal level, however, there’d been no concessions whatsoever—including in regard to mandated vaccinations for those crossing the border. Convoy organizers had hoped that someone from Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals, a cabinet minister or even a senior staffer, would agree to meet with them. But this became increasingly unlikely the more the convoy dug in, and the more Trudeau denounced the protesters in his public statements.

There’d been no real opposition voice in the House of Commons during the early part of the protest. For nearly two years, federal politicians from all parties had largely stressed a “Team Canada” approach to the pandemic. Unity seemed more important to the Conservative and New Democratic opposition parties than pushing back against government policies that, like any government initiatives, could have benefited from rigorous challenge. Prior to the federal leaders’ debate during the 2021 election campaign, in fact, all five party leaders set aside their disagreements to record French and English public-service announcements urging Canadians to get vaccinated.

That most Canadians did get vaccinated seemed to confirm the belief that rising above partisanship had been the right thing to do. But some unvaccinated Canadians saw this show of unity as proof that no one in federal politics was interested in representing them—with the lone exception of People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, who had (and still has) no representatives to parliament.

This consensus began to fray when several Conservative MPs spoke out against the federal government’s cross-border vaccine requirement for truckers. And by the time the convoy hit Ottawa in late January, it was evident that rank-and-file Conservatives were broadly sympathetic to the protest movement, including not just backbench Conservative MPs but also deputy party leader Candice Bergen. And when the party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, dithered, the pro-trucker element in his caucus made its move.

On the evening of January 31st, dozens of Conservative MPs signed a letter calling for a caucus vote on O’Toole’s leadership. At a tense session two days later, they voted 73–45 to oust him. Caucus concerns with O’Toole’s leadership had predated the convoy, and even the 2021 election. But it was O’Toole’s hesitant response to the truckers that gave dissidents the excuse they needed to act decisively. Not only did Bergen, the interim leader, support the convoy, but so did the first announced permanent leadership contender, Pierre Poilievre (who, seven months later, won the leadership race).

The Conservatives now no longer described the truckers as a fringe group. On February 4th, two days after becoming interim leader, Bergen issued a statement asking truckers to remain peaceful, but also assuring them that “Canadians and Conservatives have heard you loud and clear.”

The same day, Bergen tried to set up a meeting with Tamara Lich, one of the principal organisers of the convoy protests. It was brokered by Lich’s member of parliament, Conservative Glen Motz, who’d called Lich to ask if she could go to a nearby A&W fast food restaurant for a five-minute meeting. Because the proposed location was public, Lich and her team felt it would be no more than a photo op. But convoy lawyer Keith Wilson responded with a counteroffer—an invitation for Bergen to meet with Lich for a private conversation with no photos and no media statement. Either Motz didn’t deliver the message or Bergen’s office declined, but the meeting never took place. (Neither Bergen nor Motz responded to requests for comment.)

The convoy organizers’ decision to not take the meeting is perplexing: they’d taken ownership of the convoy-sparked Conservative party shakeup that had thrust Bergen into power, and photos of an audience with the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition would send a strong message to naysayers that the convoy had secured a seat at the table and was a mainstream political movement (rather than, as Justin Trudeau liked to say, a “fringe minority”). Evidently, however, the organizers didn’t see it that way: While Wilson understood they were giving up a potential boost in legitimacy, he felt the risk of a photo op that turned the movement into a partisan Conservative spectacle was a greater concern. “To the extent [the convoy] has even been an organization, it has been trying to be apolitical,” Wilson said. In any event, Bergen’s office never engaged with convoy organizers again.

For all the work that convoy organizers were putting into managing logistics, messaging, and other details, they remained at the mercy of the convoy’s grass-roots actors. At ground level, the convoy was taking on a life of its own, as evidenced by the border blockades that started to take form far away from Ottawa. On the same weekend that the main convoys arrived in Ottawa, a group of truckers blocked the Canada-United States border crossing near Coutts, Alberta. It’s a crossing that’s responsible for $15.9 billion each year in cross-border trade—or $44 million per day. All it took was a few dozen truckers to bring it to a standstill.

Coutts was just the beginning. Other blockades developed in Surrey, British Columbia; Emerson, Manitoba; and the critical Ontario-Michigan bridge crossings at Sarnia and Windsor, among other locations. This was consistent with the original idea of simultaneous national protests, jam-ups, and slow-rolls envisioned back in December, 2021 by early convoy organizer Brigitte Belton. But neither she nor the convoy protesters had anything to do with these border blockades. They just happened.

“We’d find out about the border closures from the media,” Wilson said. “If these truckers [in Ottawa] thought it was a good idea to block a border, they would have driven to the border. They wouldn’t have driven across the country in winter to go to Ottawa.”

“I wish we could take the credit for the blockades, but we cannot,” Lich said in a February 14th Facebook video. “This movement has captured the hearts of Canadians and the entire world. We’re aware that Canadians nationwide are feeling inspired by the truckers’ resolve here in Ottawa and are starting their own convoy demonstrations as a means of showing support for ending mandates. We wish them well and are so heartened to see how organically this movement is spreading. We, of course, encourage all demonstrators across the country to be peaceful, just like we have been and will continue to be here in Ottawa.”

But Lich didn’t write that statement, even if she was the one reading it. And she later said she was uncomfortable with some aspects of the border blockades, which she viewed as fundamentally different from the situation in Ottawa. “We were trying to find a balance between being kind of supportive [of the blockades], but not being too supportive,” she told me. “Because we weren’t condoning illegal behaviour.”

Critics of the protests claimed that the border blockades had caused significant economic damage to Canada and its workers. In fact, the volume of Canada-US cross-border trade in February 2022 actually increased over the February, 2021 numbers, as trucks simply diverted to other crossings. Nevertheless, the blockades were disruptive, and seemed to erode some of the goodwill the convoy had gained from the public and certain Conservative politicians. On February 10th, Bergen once again lauded the convoy for growing into an “international phenomenon,” but this time added, “the time has come to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action, and come together. The economy you want to see reopened is hurting.”

All told, the border blockades were a mixed blessing for the truckers. Convoy organizer BJ Dichter said he thinks the blockaders were responsible for the ongoing American coverage, particularly from cable news, talk radio, and conservative digital outlets. But Lich said the blockades were “harmful in the long run.” The media associated them with the Ottawa convoy organizers, despite the lack of any direct connection. And as a result, they set the stage for government officials to creates plans for bringing the Ottawa protests to an abrupt end.

Adapted, with permission, from The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks That Shook the World, by Andrew Lawton. Published by Sutherland House. Copyright © 2022 by Andrew Lawton.


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